Potemkin City Limits
Fat Wreck Chords
adical punk band Propagandhi’s ambivalence about the punk scene—and particularly their label, Fat Wreck Chords—has always been on abundant display. Their first album bore an “anti-copyright” but warned Fat Wreck owner Fat Mike might still employ legal recourse against pirating. The back cover of 1996’s Less Talk, More Rock (probably my favorite punk album of the 1990s) sneered, “So what if we’re on Fat Wreck Chords.” And now, on Potemkin City Limits, the band goes out of its way to antagonize Fat Mike, offering a picture of him shaking hands with a smiling John Kerry in the insert, next to a quote from a public relations lackey for the National Cattlemen’s Association on how to co-opt the power of activists. In case the point is missed, this all goes down on the same page as the lyrics for “Rock For Sustainable Capitalism,” which takes shots at the corporate complacency of the Warped Tour generation—a tour Fat Mike’s own NOFX has often joined.
This internal squabbling is probably mutually beneficial in the sense that it keeps the band and the label in the headlines of the punk press. But while ambivalence can be a powerful inspiration, it can also prove paralyzing. Sadly, Potemkin City Limits displays more of the latter effect. “Rock for Sustainable Capitalism” is a case in point: this is a band whose lengthy reading list includes Ward Churchill, Frantz Fanon, numerous books on the Rwandan genocide and other African aftereffects of imperialism, and a surprising amount of Gore Vidal (no Myra Breckinridge, alas), and they’re taking on something as trivial as a bunch of pop-punk bands more concerned with getting girls in the bus than the U.S. out of Iraq? And suspending their sophistication as they fall prey to nostalgia—the favorite tactic of fascists everywhere—in the process, asking, “Anyone remember when we used to believe that music was a sacred place and not some fucking bank machine?”
Something seems amiss in that song, and on Potemkin City Limits in general. Propagandhi was razor-sharp on Less Talk, delivering punk dispatches with smart lyrics, memorable hooks that kept their distance from classification as “pop-punk” (except perhaps future Weakerthan John Sampson’s wonderful contributions), and righteous doses of political polemic. The band was always didactic but never pedantic; “do you know what patricentricity means,” singer-guitarist Chris Hannah might ask, but only before breathlessly adding, “I found out just a couple of days ago.” Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes in 2000 showed signs of regression into a more generic hardcore sound but still found time to ask such memorable questions as, “With friends like these, who the fuck needs COINTELPRO?”
Five years later, the band—never a bastion of prolificacy—once again overhauls its sound. Potemkin can best be described as Today’s Empires played in half-time. The songs mostly stretch out to the four-minute mark, but with two minutes’ worth of hardcore melody, which is to say, pretty much none at all. Guitar riffs come and go. Lyrics that sound like political treatises scroll across the listener’s consciousness, broken arbitrarily into song lines each time a quota of syllables is filled. At some length, a representative example (from “Fedallah’s Curse”):
Don’t forget to thank those bitter ex-musicians cum embedded rock-journalists frantically applauding the artist-formerly-known-as-iconoclast, giddy from the fumes of a fresh defection, moping to the maudlin beat of a hat rack rhythm section, a tacit understanding of mutual non-aggression enjoyed by every nauseating do-nothing functionary.
It reads pretty decently as prose, and there’s even some rhyming involved, but as sung lyrics it’s basically a barrage of words. In the midst of this dissertation drummer Jordan Samolesky does offer heroic downbeats and fills, but it’s a Battle of New Orleans in a war that’s already lost.
Potemkin opens on a solid note, with “A Speculative Fiction” imagining a war between Canada and the U.S. No points for guessing who wins; Propagandhi hail from Winnipeg, and their national loyalty runs so deep they throw a Voivod quote into the insert to show solidarity. Things end on a high note as well: “Iteration” starts off with George W. Bush promising, “War crimes will be prosecuted” and “it will be no defense to say, ‘I was only following orders’” to the sound of canned laughter, before launching into another fictional narrative of a war-profiteering CEO sentenced to manual labor removing buried landmines. It’s a powerful scenario, complete with little details involving a rightfully vengeful foreman, but even here the song works better on the lyric sheet than on the speakers, where it ends with a wanky guitar solo that lets the story’s power dissipate.
Bassist and vocalist Todd “the Rod” Kowalski seems to understand the doldrums inherent in four-minute mid-tempo punk, so he offers up the thirty-second “Superbowl Patriot XXXVI” to liven things up near the end, with screams of, “The (Presidential) Liar is in the house. Bono’s in the house! We’re doomed! Fucking doomed! Fucking doomed!” It alleviates the album’s monotony, but as track eleven of twelve, it comes too late (and the Rod’s earlier rave-up, “Impending Halfhead,” is a disastrous attempt at addressing adolescent sexual misfits that could barely justify its presence on a b-side). More typical is “Cut Into the Earth,” with bland environmental lyrics and a jazzy musical intro that sounds like something from a late-60s Miles Davis album. It’s nice to see that Propagandhi have got some technical virtuosity, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere, and like “Iteration” and several other songs on the album it’s graced with a few guitar solos that add nothing to its composition. “America’s Army (Die Jugend Marschiert)” offers an obvious comparison between the U.S. military and the Hitler Youth, and bloats it to nearly five minutes with gratuitous guitar riffage that sounds to me like a quote from Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” followed by that damn Ataris “Boys of Summer” cover.
It’s commendable that Propagandhi are clearly not content to take a successful formula and repeat it like, well, most of the Fat Wreck roster. But experiment brings risk, and Potemkin City Limits shows a band stumbling and falling, no matter how many times I listen to it trying to force it to grow on me. The band’s politics are still astute, but they’ve forgotten that writing music requires methods different from writing manifestoes.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-01-04